Today we celebrate the feast of the baptism of the Lord–one of the events that we meditate on in the rosary, an event reported by all three synoptic gospels, a feast celebrated since the very beginning of the church’s calendar. Excepted we should at least be aware that the baptism of the Lord in the West was celebrated under the general heading of the Feast of the Epiphany for many years–the Epiphany, as I explained last week, has been one of the those strange feasts that have actually referred to several major events in Christ’s life instead of just one particular event. In that, it’s a little different than most feasts. Traditionally, the Epiphany has actually celebrated the magi bringing gifts, the wedding at Cana, and the Baptism of the Lord. What is important about the Epiphany is that it is a celebration of Christ being revealed to the nations. That is literally what the word “Epiphany” means in Greek–some kind of striking revelation or appearance. But today we do not have to think about the complex feasts of the Epiphany. We celebrate something very specific and very important–the Baptism of the Lord.
In our day and age, we aren’t really catechized very well. And so feasts like this provide an opportunity to learn about very important aspects of our faith that perhaps we haven’t thought about too much for awhile. Namely BAPTISM. So when it comes to baptism, I think that a few major questions should be answered:
1) What did baptism mean in Jesus time?
2) Why would Jesus have gotten baptized himself by John the Baptist?
3) Why should we care? Or what does this mean for my spiritual life?
First, what did baptism mean in Jesus’s time? Immersion with water has always been a natural way of cleansing the body, and so it is not hard to apply it to a ritual in spiritual terms. Just as an immersion with water can cleans the body of dirt, the ritual of baptism can, with God’s grace, cleanse the soul of sin. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, baptism refers to an ablution in water that represents consecration or purification, and that in the Jewish religion this has always been customary in Israel. Baptism as long as a number of different cleansing rituals was an absolute requirement of a member of the Jewish faith along with circumcision. One interesting thing that we should note is that according to some rituals, immersion in water was supposed to be accompanied by the sprinkling of the person with the blood of an animal sacrifice. Y’all, there is a lot of theology going on here, but I can only touch on a little bit of it. With this in mind, should we be surprised that very close to the baptism of Jesus, John the baptism cries about Jesus, “behold the lamb of god who takes away the sins of the world?” In other words, John continues the same tradition of Jewish rabbis and prophets baptizing the people, but the new sacrifice—the new sprinkling of blood—is going to come from a new lamb of God—that is Jesus himself. THIS REFERS TO THE MYSTERY OF THE EUCHARIST, FROM THE VERY BEGINNING OF JESUS MINISTRY. The way that all of this comes together I think is far too beautiful and complex than a human mind could have made up. What both the sprinkling of blood and immersion in water have in common is one single thing: the washing away of sin. My brothers and sisters, without an understanding of sin—without a belief in sin, and the necessary activity of taking away that sin by God along with the cooperation of mankind—then baptism makes no sense and the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense. And certainly the baptism of Jesus makes no sense. And what is one thing that the modern world attacks most of all? The idea of sin. Isn’t that interesting? What do these modern demons tell us? They tell us that what the ancient world used to call “sin” are simply mistakes. Just so many prejudices of so many peoples who are not enlightened. Everything is really ok except for a few laundry lists of horrible crimes, and even those are just committed by a complex animal whose brain chemistry has gone awry. The only sin that you can possibly commit, according to these wonderfully enlightened demons, is the sin of claiming that sin really exists, and that these people are committing them.
Why would Jesus have been baptized by John the Baptist? This is a question under some dispute. It seems to be a problem when you really think about it. After all, John the Baptist is pretty obviously bothered by Jesus coming to HIM for baptism. He even tells him, “I need to be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?” But Jesus says something very interesting. “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus doesn’t explain what he means. But John goes through with it. What is going on here? Aren’t you at least a little curious? Traditionally, baptism cleanses us from sin and incorpates us into the life of God. Baptism is that event that truly begins our Christian life. It is our birthday into the life of God. But Jesus didn’t need either of these things. He did not need to be washed away from sin nor did he need a birthday into the life of God—he already was God.
The simplest answer is that by this particular sacrament—this particular event in time that happened on one particular day around 25 a.d., Jesus Christ himself was baptized and by that event he himself instituted the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament that all Christians participate in was instituted by Jesus himself—he gave us an example, and he also let us know what happens when we are baptized. God the father himself said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” The prophecy in Isaiah that we heard just now is what God the Father himself refers to when he says that “this is my beloved son” as the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove.
When was the last time you were in prayer and really felt like you heard those words from God your father: “This is my beloved son. This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” I am convinced that if we had a greater understanding of this one single line, it would banish a great deal of depression from our country and dramatically reduce the number of divorces and the number of religious leaving vows. How solid are we in our identity as sons and daughters of God? Do we wake up in the morning with the thought in mind that it is part of your MISSION IN LIFE, your very identity, to be this for the world? What does God tell us about that identity in the prophecy of Isaiah:
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
Did you know that YOUR life is supposed to be about those things as well? That maybe if you are searching for some meaning in your life, you have forgotten the call of your baptism to be a beloved son or daughter of God? When Jesus was baptized by John, he did not say, “This is fitting for ME to fufill all justice.” He said, “This is fitting FOR US to fulfill all justice.” Jesus was clear that by this act, he wanted to SHARE that mission with us, not simply do it all himself.
I am already giving hints about answering the third question–“Why should I care, anyway?” What does Jesus’s baptism mean for me? It means that it is a sign of who we are as well–beloved sons and daughters of God. This is what happens to us when we are baptized. We are made, by a spiritual act of grace during a ritual, sons and daughters of God. In a very real way, we are made part of the body of Jesus at our baptism–we are made part of God himself.
But another reason why Jesus submitted to this act from John is it is part of his mission to humble himself from the very beginning. From the very beginning, Jesus chooses the way of the poor, the way of the humble–not the way of power and pomp and status. Listen again to what we heard in Isaiah:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
A bruised reed he shall not break.
A smoldering wick he shall not quench.
He won’t cry out in the street.
In other words, he will not demand absolute perfection. God is not obsessive compulsive. He will not come to us through signs and wonders. He will come to us in gentleness and humility. He will come to us in the ordinary circumstances of life. He will come to us over and over again when we fall over and over again, when we disappoint him over and over again, he will not relent–he will not put out our smoldering wick. The bruised reeds of ours hearts he will NOT break and throw into the fire. You know, it is no accident that this even happens in Jesus life only AFTER he is tempted in the desert. In other words, he receives his true identity from God only after he wrestles with his major temptations and puts them down. Maybe we need to do a little bit of that ourselves before God allows us to hear that voice from the heavenly father more loudly, “This is my beloved son. This is my beloved daughter.”
When was the last time you really called God the father, abba? Daddy? And mean it? When was the last time you considered that your baptism altered your soul and gave you a part in the mission of Jesus Christ to save the lost, to release captives, and to heal the broken hearted?
In the acts of the Apostles, this is the epitaph that Peter–the first pope–gives about Jesus. It is how he sums up the entire ministry of the Son of God:
He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”
Father, may that be my epitaph as well, and that of every precious son and daughter in my congregation. Amen.